April 8, 2019

Memo on Trump Administration’s Decision to Name IRGC a Foreign Terrorist Organization

The Trump administration designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) is a dangerous and unprecedented escalatory move that could set the stage for a catastrophic conflict with Iran. It marks the first time a state-run military, one into which ordinary Iranians are often conscripted for mandatory military service, has been designated as an FTO.

Given the IRGC is already one of the most sanctioned entities on the planet, the designation achieves little in terms of economic restrictions or penalties for the IRGC. Instead, it needlessly puts U.S. servicemen and bases across the Middle East at risk, diminishes U.S. diplomatic and military connections in countries like Iraq and Syria, and further limits the potential for future diplomatic de-escalation with Iran. The Pentagon has long warned against the move, and the CIA voiced reservations about this decision.

There is no doubt that the IRGC engages in a wide range of activities that undermine regional security and repress the Iranian people. Yet, the IRGC has been a major beneficiary of broad sanctions on the Iranian economy and rising U.S.-Iran tensions.

Members of Congress should denounce this decision as a needlessly reckless move that serves no purpose other than to increase the risk of conflict in an already turbulent Middle East.

The following is an overview of the potential consequences of an IRGC FTO designation:

Risk to U.S. Servicemen and Bases

  • Designating the military wing of a foreign state an FTO is an unprecedented action that could subject U.S. troops to similar treatment from adversaries and risk withdrawing the legal protections that accompany them in theaters of war. This is one of the major reasons that the Department of Defense and retired military officers have been steadfastly opposed to designating the IRGC an FTO.
  • Designating the IRGC an FTO risks retaliation against American troops in Iraq and Syria, where such troops are in close proximity to the IRGC or its partner militias. Both the Pentagon and the CIA have reportedly warned about the severe consequences to U.S. troops and broader U.S. interests in the Middle East that could accompany this designation.
  • Iranian officials and military commanders have stated than they would reciprocate an IRGC FTO designation with a similar designation against the U.S. military. Over 250 Iranian members of parliament have signed a statement calling for such a reciprocal action, while the head of the IRGC has also vowed a tit-for-tat response and said that U.S. forces in the region will “lose their current status of ease and serenity.”
  • While the U.S. military and the IRGC were on opposite sides in Iraq for years after the 2003 U.S. invasion, the counter-ISIS campaign saw them fight a common enemy. The IRGC was at the center of Iranian efforts to roll back ISIS in Iraq, with U.S. forces operating in close proximity in coordination with the Iraqi army. The fact that the Trump administration has now pocketed Iran’s assistance and turned around and designated the IRGC an FTO will not be forgotten when it comes to deconfliction in future conflicts.


Negligible Economic Penalty

  • The legal effect of designating the IRGC a Foreign Terrorist Organization is negligible. The sanctions consequences of an FTO designation are entirely duplicative of existing U.S. sanctions authorities. The IRGC is designated under multiple U.S. sanctions programs, many of which have much more substantial force than an FTO designation. For this reason, designating the IRGC an FTO has nothing to do with exerting more pressure on Iran.
  • Because an FTO designation does not have any additional legal consequences for the IRGC, the intended purpose of this action appears to be to foment a military conflict with Iran. The Trump administration is taking this action not in spite of the risks of a new war in the Middle East but precisely because it embraces those risks and hopes to see them through to fruition.  

Limiting U.S. Diplomatic Options

  • Designating the IRGC an FTO dramatically escalates U.S.-Iran tensions and further negates the possibility for successful diplomacy between the two countries, whether over regional crises, detained Americans in Iran or Iranian nuclear or ballistic missile programs.
  • The Trump administration is seeking to constrain a future President from being able to return the United States to compliance with the JCPOA.  Designating the IRGC is further evidence of this intent. Even if the FTO designation does not lead to an outbreak of conflict with Iran, the Trump administration believes that the designation will deter foreign investment in Iran and will be politically difficult to undo. This move is thus intended to undermine a future President’s efforts to re-enter the JCPOA and comply with U.S. obligations thereto.       
  • The designation also limits U.S. diplomatic and military options across the region in countries where the IRGC has influence, especially in Iraq and Lebanon. In these countries, U.S. military and diplomatic personnel may be prevented from contact with senior Iraqi or Lebanese authorities who have contact with the IRGC. According to reports, the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies have raised concerns about this impact of the designation in reducing U.S. regional influence.
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